We live in a confusing age. It is an age that tells little boys who do not like contact sports or who fail to conform to expectations about what boys should be interested in, that they might, in fact, be girls. Or, perhaps the girl who would rather play baseball than watch Disney princess movies is told she should question whether she’s really a girl.
These examples are not outliers or exaggerations. Because the concept of gender is so confused and contested in America, we are approaching a time where it is becoming impossible to declare with any confidence what a girl or a boy is.
Gender is the cultural association tied to biological sex. What do I mean? When a little girl is born, she is adorned in pink. But there’s nothing intrinsically or objectively feminine about a color. Pink is simply the agreed-upon cultural association that society has assigned to females.
Gender norms can change from one culture to the next. In Scotland, for example, men wear kilts, which look a lot like a woman’s dress. Except in Scottish culture, it is not feminine to wear a kilt.
So to some degree, gender is culturally-defined, but it is more accurate to say that gender is the social expression of biological sex.
Christians need to understand that as partakers of God’s good creation, we are to acknowledge and participate in culturally-appropriate gender distinctions. This means Christians should abide by the gender norms set by their culture insofar as what the culture dictates does not transgress God’s moral law for upholding the sex distinction between male and female (Deut. 22:5; 1 Cor. 11:3-16). For example, cross-dressing is sinful because it violates the creational boundaries between male and female that come to be expressed in culturally-appropriate gender norms.
The predicament of our current age is that we are approaching a time where gender norms are altogether rejected, regardless of biological sex. Known as “androgyny,” this ethic attempts to make sex and gender indeterminate, which is a violation of God’s creational design for maintaining sex distinctions.
What is not socially constructed, however, is the pivotal truth that gender follows downstream from an objective reality: biological sex. Men are biologically one way, women another. Gender norms are merely the culture’s designation of how it distinguishes men from women. Biology is authoritative in the sense that it determines how gender norms take shape within a culture.
Gender has always been expressed in different ways. What has changed today is that many now see gender as unattached to biological sex. That is, you don’t just express gender differently; you can be a different gender. Your sex may be “female,” but that does not necessarily mean that you — as regards your gender — are “female.”
On the one hand, people do experience gender conflicts, and we call this “gender dysphoria.” We should be compassionate and sensitive with those individuals who are in deep anguish about how they perceive (incorrectly, it should be noted) a mismatch between their sex and their gender identity.
On the other hand, just because someone feels as though they have a confused gender identity, it does not mean that a biological female is truly a male just because she perceives herself to be male.
A lot of this misunderstanding (but not all) comes from extremes when it comes to gender stereotyping. If a woman fails to feel feminine as the culture tells her to be feminine, it does not mean she’s a man. The same is true about men.
Unfortunately, the church has sometimes contributed to extreme gender stereotyping.
When a church hosts a “Wild Game Dinner,” for example, and invites men to it as a church-sanctioned men’s event, it can unintentionally make men who do not enjoy those same activities feel less masculine. Please hear me: I am not saying to quit with these types of events. What I am saying, however, is to be sensitive from advertising it as an event that tries to define manliness and masculinity.
Challenges to pastors
Recovering healthy gender norms is one aspect of what is required of pastors in this day and age. It also means confronting the errors of a society that would have church members confused on what it means to be a boy or a girl, or a man or a woman.
Pastors, especially young ones, do not want to be the culture-warrior type. I get that. I really do. Unfortunately, if you are pastoring, declaring the whole counsel of God includes God’s lordship over human identity and gender norms (Acts 20:27; Gen. 1:27; Matt. 19:4-6).
Pastors do not have to be a culture warriors to lose visitors or members because they are preaching biblical convictions. Church leaders can be as winsome as possible when it comes to controversial subjects like gender and sexuality, but winsomeness on its own is not enough. People left Jesus for the radical discipleship he demanded, and there was no one more winsome than He (John 1:14; John 6:60-66). What is worse than forsaking winsomeness is forsaking biblical truth and allowing culture to devour your flock (Acts 20:28).
Published July 10, 2018